- Mark Zuckerberg finally broke his silence on the Cambridge Analytica scandal on Wednesday, meaning the social network’s redemption tour has begun.
- It’s a good time to reflect on how much of our personal information we’re willing to share online – especially as the tools for misusing that data get smarter and better every year.
- Cambridge Analytica may be the first big social-media data scandal, but it won’t be the last. And it gets weirder from here.
By now, it looks as if the furor over Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal has peaked – CEO Mark Zuckerberg has finally broken his silence and promised to do better.
It seems likely that Zuckerberg, or one of his lieutenants, will have to testify in front of lawmakers. Concessions will be made, the idea of regulating “big tech” will be kicked around some more, and then, in all probability, the world will move on.
So it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what we’ve learned from the affair so far.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal serves as a forceful reminder that there are consequences to posting on social media. While Cambridge Analytica obtained data from millions of Facebook users through unsanctioned means, the data itself was scraped from what people were sharing on Facebook.
The fact this data was used to custom-tailor ads for prospective voters in service of swaying voters toward Donald Trump is a wake-up call for people on all sides of the political divide: It matters that you share things on Facebook. And yes, the internet can reach out and influence the real world.
Here’s the thing, though. Cambridge Analytica is really just the canary in the coal mine for a new wave of scandals – scandals that are impossible to prepare for because the world hasn’t seen anything like them.
The first thing you should know is that when it comes to sharing information online, that ship has mostly sailed. Between your friends tagging you on Facebook, and the very many data breaches experienced by sites like Yahoo and Orbitz, there is more information about you floating around online than you may realise.
Second, and more important, you have to know the future will get very odd. Just this year, a scandal broke out on Reddit over “Deepfakes,” a technology for using artificial intelligence to digitally insert celebrities into pornographic videos, using nothing more than still photos.
The point is that as such technology matures, it’s only going to get easier for people to create fake stuff: fake videos, fake accounts, fake news. And it’s going to be harder for ordinary people to understand what is authentic and what isn’t.
Every Twitch streamer, every Instagram selfie-taker, and every YouTube vlogger, every bit of personal information you think you are revealing only to your friends could be giving the bad guys all the ammunition they need to impersonate people.
I mean, researchers have shown that it’s possible to duplicate a fingerprint from an Instagram photo.
Besides flat-out fakes and impersonation, there is manipulation of the style employed by Cambridge Analytica. It used social-media information to construct “psychographic” voter profiles, targeting users based on their personality traits. And that technology will be getting smarter, too. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will allow all kinds of companies (and more of those bad guys) to construct ever-more-accurate assessments of what you like, what you don’t like, and what motivates you, all based on the data stream you’re leaving behind.
From there, these models could be used to create very realistic “virtual” humans. Couple all of this with Mark Zuckerberg’s notion that computers you wear on your face are the wave of the future, and the future will be equal parts weird and scary. It’s already getting difficult to tell what is real; it’s only going to get harder from here.
So as the Cambridge Analytica scandal passes its crescendo, just get ready for what’s next, because we as a society will need to have some really tough conversations about what we share online, who can access that information, and, most important, how we can protect ourselves.
This time, the data was used for advertising designed to influence an election. I’m not sure I want to know what other ways our data will be misused, but it seems inevitable that one day, very soon, we will all find out.